Tense and Aspect Definitions

From: Jonathan Robie (jonathan@texcel.no)
Date: Mon Mar 08 1999 - 10:29:51 EST

At 01:26 PM 3/6/99 -0800, Hultberg, Alan D wrote:
>Just to clarify some terminology.
>When aspect theorists talk about the Greek verb, they tend to use these
>TENSE = a morpholigical category; so the aorist TENSE means a particular form
>of the verb
>ASPECT = the kind of action that the tense-form stands for, whether
>perfective, imperfective, or stative. In this sense it is the equivalent of
>the old German label *Aktionsart* (lit. "kind of action").

Aspect theorists use these terms in different ways. For instance, both
Comrie and Mari Broman Olsen separate both tense and aspect from verb
morphology, so they can ask, for instance, whether the Aorist
grammaticalizes tense, aspect, or both.

Although these terms have been burdened with many Humpty Dumpty
definitions, I think that many people who have written on the subject of
aspect would tend to agree with these definitions:

TENSE: an expression of the relationship between the time of discourse and
the time of the event or state described by the verb. For instance, a past
tense verb describes an event or state prior to the time of discourse.

ASPECT: an expression of the viewpoint taken to present the event or state
to the listener or reader.

Note that our definition of TENSE is at direct odds with the older
definition of TENSE to describe a particular form of a verb. For instance,
there is a raging debate as to whether the Aorist is a tense. I don't think
anybody in the debate questions whether the Aorist is a morphological form.
For the sake of clarity, I prefer to talk about TIME and ASPECT, rather
than TENSE and ASPECT, so I would rather ask whether the Aorist
grammaticalizes time.

The term "Aktionsart" describes the kind of action that is involved -
whether it is continuous, iterative, punctiliar, etc. Older grammars such
as Robertson or Smyth emphasize Aktionsart in understanding the meaning of
the Greek "tenses".

>The difference between aspect and *Aktionsart* is that the latter is presumed
>to relate to the occurence of the verb as it happened in real time, while the
>former presumes no such NECESSARY relationship.

Another way of putting this: ASPECT refers to the viewpoint from which a
verb's action or state is portrayed, and AKTIONSART refers directly to the
kind of action or state as it objectively occured.

Note that the better traditional grammars, such as Smyth or Robertson,
clearly distinguish tense from Aktionsart, refer to the portrayal of the
action when explaining particular uses, and are generally consistent with
the interpretations offered by Fanning.

Another critial distinction:

SYNTACTIC ASPECT: the portion of aspect that is grammaticalized by the form
of the verb.
LEXICAL ASPECT: the portion of aspect that is inherent in the verb itself.

This distinction takes into account the fact that the meaning of verbs may
impose a particular view of the action. If I say "he started to run", we
see the beginning of the action because of the inherent meaning of
"started". Fanning's great contribution is drawing attention, in a more
systematic way, to the interaction between the aspect implied by the verb
meaning and the aspect implied by the verbal form.

Mari Broman's contribution is coming up with a formal model for describing
this relationship.

It is worth noting that some aspect theorists use the term AKTIONSART as a
synonym for LEXICAL ASPECT. This is somewhat distressing for me, since this
is emphatically not now the term AKTIONSART is used in grammars like
Robertson or Smyth.

In general, if you want to use the terms TENSE or AKTIONSART, I think that
you should be careful to define what you mean when *you* use these terms,
because otherwise you are unlikely to communicate effectively with those
who have other definitions for them. As for me, I've gone to the terms

>question is, and here is where I understand where you're coming from, whether
>verbal aspect CAN be examined in the absolute, since every REAL choice to use
>one aspect or another at any given time is affected by various contextually
>specific factors (that is, both the discourse context and the context of the
>idiolect of the language user).
It's not use to say that unless you can identify what these factors are.
When I read Porter, I often get the feeling that he is saying that the
context overrules whatever phenomenon he is discussing. If that's true,
then he should stop writing about that phenomenon and describe some
phenomenon in the context that has some predictive value for the
interpretation of a verb's meaning. Porter likes to dismiss other people's
theories with counterexamples, but he doesn't really propose a testable
theory of his own, which means that he doesn't really give me any way to
evaluate whether what he says is true.

Naturally, context is important, but to make useful statements about
context and aspect, you have to identify what these contextual factors are
and how they contribute to the aspect of a verb. I think Mari Broman Olsen
has done the best job of this. For instance, she discusses in some depth
how contextual implications about the aspect of a verb interact with
syntactic aspect and lexical aspect. She also provides a broad view of
aspect in many languages. Fanning has much more comprehensive treatment of
aspect in the New Testament, with in-depth analysis of many passages - his
theory is not as strong as Mari's, but his treatment of the passages is
extraordinarily helpful.

Texcel Research

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